When Mel Rutledge lost her only sister, Evelyn, to cancer, it was on Christmas Eve in 2001. “She'd spent her last three weeks at Hospice. It was hard, very hard. That first Christmas after, we set a place for her at the table. Everyone deals with it differently, and that was our way.”
Mel's direct experience of Victoria Hospice inspired her to become first a Unit volunteer and then a Bereavement Services volunteer. “For me, seeing firsthand how hospice operated as a team, the care, compassion and kindness—they do everything to make a person comfortable—I knew I wanted to give back, and I knew I would enjoy being part of the team.”
The effort to serve each patient and their families, to see them through the end-of-life journey, doesn't end with the death. “We're still there for them when they are grieving,” explains Mel, “with one-on-one counselling, follow-up phone calls, and support groups.” Another important part of the Bereavement Services are public events, such as memorial services, seminars, and the popular Celebrate a Life program.
The 25th annual Celebrate a Life runs Saturday, December 4 through Sunday, December 12  at Hillside Centre. Volunteers staff the display during mall hours. Mel explains, “We have a memorial book there to sign, and you can sit in a quiet area and write something about your loved one; or you can write a message in honour of someone who has passed and hang it on one of the trees. We also have bereavement brochures and information for those who are interested, and we engage people to talk and share their stories, their grief—we're just there for them, to listen.”
“The holidays can be one of the most painful times of the year you go through, but things don't have to be the same,” advises Mel, whose daughter also died of cancer in the Hospice Unit in 2008. “We encourage people to change up their traditions—it's okay to let a year go by without sending out Christmas cards, or hosting the family dinner—you might even go away for a vacation. The most important thing is to care for yourself, including reaching out for grief support if needed.”
The vital services provided by Victoria Hospice, including Bereavement Services and Celebrate a Life, depend on community giving. Every donation helps ensure thousands of Victorians have access to these programs each year, which answer the community's needs for grief support and counselling.
[This article was originally published in the December 2010 edition of Focus Magazine.]